Are You Being Bamboozled By Bamboo?
If you have ever heard claims like "Bamboo is the best choice for your baby, and for the planet’s future", chances are high that you have been bamboozled..
Back in 2018 when we started working on the idea of TØY, the softest, most comfortable and functional clothes and accessories that do not sacrifice the environment, much of our year-long preparation time went into research about the fabrics and raw materials we were going to use for our products.
Being a natural raw material and getting advertised as an eco-friendly option, we considered "bamboo" as one of our top choices. However, upon reading about the processing of raw bamboo grass into the silky-soft fabric, we quickly crossed it off our list in favor for 100% organic cotton.
Here are the 5 main reasons why:
1. Bamboo grass and bamboo fabrics are not equally natural
Bamboo is a naturally fast-growing crop, which doesn't require a lot of fertilizers and pesticides, so if grown under the right conditions it can be a pretty sustainable and eco-friendly material.
But, there is a significant difference in the look and feel of the naturally hard bamboo stalks and the finished silky-soft and stretchy bamboo fabric you typically see baby & adult clothing being made with. That is because a chemical-heavy process is required to transform stiff bamboo grass into that cozy fabric you think of (actually called viscose or rayon made from bamboo), making the finished fabric the opposite of natural.
2. Bamboo products can be made without toxins, but they won't be soft
Raw bamboo is an excellent material for furniture, construction, musical instruments, decorations and many more things you can DIY, and it's because bamboo is hard and sturdy. You can also create textiles from it by mechanically extracting fibers from bamboo stalks, softening them (some harsh chemicals needed for degumming) and spinning these quite hard pieces into "threads", but the natural bamboo fibers will be coarse and uncomfortable to wear. Due to the stiffness, rough feel, and the fact that the real bamboo fabrics are extremely labor intensive and therefore expensive to produce, they are rarely being used in clothing.
We recommend reading this research project from University of Alabama for more in-depth information about production of bamboo fibers.
3. Any soft "bamboo fabric" is processed with toxic chemicals
The "bamboo" clothing you usually see in stores - the ones that are not coarse and stiff, but rather silky-soft and cozy - is actually rayon (also called viscose) from bamboo, meaning it is a fabric synthetically made through a chemical-heavy treatment called the viscose process:
(image via Textile School)
Chemicals like sodium hydroxide (NaOH), carbon disulfide (CS2) and sulfuric acid (H2S04) used in this process are highly toxic and a risk to human health (just click the links above to learn more about each of them).
And if you don't want to just take our word for it, you can also read why other responsible brands like Patagonia refuse to use rayon/viscose fabrics made from bamboo.
4. Up to 99% of production chemicals are released to the environment
After bamboo grass is done being processed into the soft synthetic fabric in the toxic process, between 50 and 99% of the hazardous chemicals used to create it are released back to the environment, contaminating waters and air around manufacturing plants, destroying local ecosystems and causing severe health problems to the local population.
According to Paul D. Blanc, who wrote "Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon", you can't even buy US-made rayon from bamboo anymore because the process is so damaging to the environment that the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations caused the last of the American rayon factories to close down more than a decade ago. If bamboo rayon is not good for our American workers and local communities, we do not want to support it being produced in other countries and expose others to the hazardous by-products.
5. Lyocell / TENCEL fabrics are better for the environment, but they are still chemically processed fabrics
TENCEL / Lyocell fabrics, which are mainly made with eucalyptus, but also wood and bamboo, are also viscose/rayon fabrics, but they are made with close-loop manufacturing method. Those claim to use less toxic chemicals in the process, none of which are supposedly leaking into the environment, and they claim to recycle 99% of the water and solvents in the production, making them more efficient and eco-friendly than traditional rayon made through the viscose process (mentioned in #3).
While we think that Lyocell is a more promising alternative to rayon made from bamboo, it is still not a natural fabric, and therefore we have chosen to not use it for our TØY baby clothes.
Our goal is do to what's best for you, your baby and our planet, and we believe that by choosing a custom-made 100% organic cotton fabric, which is minimally treated in order to keep it as safe and natural as possible, we are on the best path to achieve that goal.
Don't get bamboozled
A lot of false advertising around bamboo is still going on, but luckily more and more brands have now learned from the hefty fine Amazon, Macy's, Sear's & more had to pay for misrepresenting their soft products as bamboo while they were, in fact, made with rayon from bamboo.
The Federal Trade Commission is only allowing textiles to be called "bamboo" if they are made with actual (not broken down and processed) bamboo fibre. Textiles made from rayon (or viscose, which is the same thing), using bamboo only as a plant source that goes through the viscose process, have to be labeled and advertised as “rayon (or viscose) made from bamboo.”
So, be sure to do your own due diligence next time you consider to purchase something made with "bamboo" and see through language like "soft & natural bamboo", "bamboo rayon", "bamboo viscose" and so on - at least now you'll be able to make an informed decision about it!